By Associated Press - Friday, August 29, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A South Carolina hunting preserve is paying $250,000 in restitution after three of its employees pleaded guilty to illegally trapping and killing hawks and owls to improve quail hunting on the property, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles announced Friday.

The financial penalty against Mackay Point Plantation in Jasper County is among the largest ever imposed for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The money will be divided among local animal charities, including the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, according to Nettles’ release.

Mackay Point’s general manager William Martin, 59; hunting dog trainer Keith Gebhardt, 54; and equipment handler Mark Argetsinger, 63, pleaded guilty. They were each sentenced Friday to six months of probation, 25 hours of community service, and a one-year ban on trapping. Additionally, Martin was fined $1,000 for leading the operation; the other two were fined $500 each, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart, who prosecuted the case.

“Today’s sentence sends a strong message to unscrupulous hunters and landowners who think they are above the law,” Nettles said.

The three workers release about 6,000 quail yearly on the private, 8,000-acre plantation for its owners to hunt. They placed dozens of baited, steel traps on the property to kill red-tail hawks and great horned owls, which eat quail. The protected birds cannot be killed without a permit.

Prosecutors say killing birds of prey to improve quail hunting has become a widespread problem in the Southeast, and that trapping the birds is a gruesome way for them to die because they’re often trapped for several days.

Acting on a confidential tip, agents with the state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service installed cameras on the plantation over a two-year period. Surveillance video showed Argetsinger and Gebhardt trapping and shooting more than 30 hawks and owls. There is no evidence that the plantation’s owners were involved, the release said.

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